Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

A full review of Louise DiTullio's recent CD The Hollywood Flute will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Film Score Monthly. In the meantime, I want to spotlight a piece with particular meaning for me -- the world premiere recording of Laurence Rosenthal's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a seven-minute piece for unaccompanied flute.

The work, which Rosenthal composed for his daughter on her sixteenth birthday, takes its inspiration from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame's bucolic masterpiece The Wind in the Willows. This chapter is often left out of retellings of the story, yet it is the tale's spiritual heart -- deemed important enough to grace the cover of the book's first edition (pictured left). In it, Rat and Mole go in search of a missing baby otter on a lonely isle. Following the trail of a mysterious, half-heard music, they find the infant asleep and sheltered in the lap of the god Pan, styled as the divine patron and protector of animals. Grahame's prose in this chapter is at its most haunting and evocative, featuring one of the finest expressions of the numinous in all of English literature. Here is a sampling:

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?'

'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!' 

To capture something of the flavor of this scene was the challenge which Rosenthal set himself. The piece opens with a low, subdued line. In gentle rolls and slow-building trills, it conjures an atmosphere of mysticism and quiet beauty. Soon, the line begins to alternate with a higher and faster-paced piping, echoing Grahame's "populous bird-haunted" landscape. Eventually, the mood quiets and we are returned to the subdued atmosphere of the opening. The range has increased, however, rising into the high registers in unpredictable, fluttering runs. Finally, the music winds down with a haunting paraphrase of the opening gestures, then fades to silence...

To write for an unaccompanied instrument such as the flute poses a special challenge for a composer. The melodic line must stand alone, naked and unadorned. To do this well requires a deep understanding of technique and range, and a keen melodic sensibility. Happily, Rosenthal possesses these gifts in abundance. The other side of the coin, of course, is to pair the composition with a soloist who can (literally, in this case) breathe life into it. Few are well-suited to this task as Louise DiTullio, one of the world's most accomplished flautists and a fixture in Hollywood, having performed on more than 1,100 motion pictures. The Hollywood Flute contains gorgeous music from John Williams' Hook, John Barry's Dances with Wolves, Danny Elfman's Charlotte's Web, and Jerry Goldsmith's Sleeping with the Enemy and Rudy, in addition to several non-film pieces. But for me, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the indisputable treasure of the CD ... a work I've longed to hear since I learned of its existence, years ago. It has not disappointed.

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